Getting my hands on a copy of this book was rather difficult. There was a one hundred and twenty-person strong waiting list in my home library system, and I felt guilty trying to procure a full-price copy whilst on a book buying ban. My patience (yes, for once I had some) paid off, and I was able to borrow it from a Glasgow library by just walking into a branch and locating it on the shelf. Wonders shall never cease.
Mothering Sunday was a choice for mine and the excellent Katie’s Chai and Sheep book club, and both of us very much liked the premise when the book was co-selected. At the time of picking it up, it seemed fitting; I had just been in a three-hour induction session led by one of my dissertation supervisors, whose current specialism is in daily novels. This marked my first foray into Swift’s work too; he has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I was unsure as to which book of his I should begin with. Then this incredibly hyped, very popular (in my home county, at least!) novella came along, and I hoped that it would provide a good introduction to his work.
The novella’s setting is Mothering Sunday in March 1924: ‘It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June. And it must have been a little after noon’. Jane Fairchild, ‘orphan and housemaid’, has nothing with which to occupy her time on this, the day in which maids nationwide were allowed the day off so that they could visit their mothers. The blurb which accompanies the book is rather intriguing, particularly with regard to the questions which it asks: ‘How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?’ It goes on to praise the novel highly, as ‘constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving’, and declares it ‘Graham Swift at his thinking best’.
Paul, beloved sole remaining son of the well-to-do Cunningham family, has been having clandestine liaisons with Jane for quite some time, but on this Sunday, the pair being the only two in the house after his parents travel ‘to Henley for lunch’, things escalate, and they make love in Paul’s bedroom. The aftermath of the act is what Swift appears to be interested in: ‘… and she wasn’t going to say, now he was on his feet and the decision all but made, “Please, don’t go. Please, don’t leave me.” She was disqualified from the upper world in which such dramas were staged. She had her lowly contempt for such stuff anyway. As if she couldn’t have used – but she wasn’t his wife, it was all the other way round – a different, quieter but fiercer language. Or just the bullet of a look.’
The opening sentence of Mothering Sunday marvellously sets both the scene and the historical period: ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid…’. Some of Swift’s imagery is just lovely; for instance, when he writes: ‘The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage’.
Whilst I wasn’t blown away by the whole, I did find the class divides which Swift portrayed rather interesting. His descriptions were largely well evoked, and did work well with the story, but I found some of his prose rather jarring in its style. I’m unsure as to whether Swift is an author I’ll pick up again; I certainly wasn’t as enamoured with this as I believed I would be at the outset.